I just got back from a fantastic trip to Tibet, whose highlight was a 5 day 4 WD trek over incomplete roads from Lhasa to the Everest Base Camp and back. Pastel mountains. Red and gold rimmed monasteries cast against a flawless blue sky. The glimmering white face of Mount Everest. The mystic smoke of incense wafting through the streets of Lhasa…. It was one of the most amazing places I have ever been. The next time you have two weeks to kill, seriously, GO TO TIBET.
Pictures say a thousand words, but my internet connection is too slow and/or there are just too many photos. So those will come later. But first, the latest (and longest?) Aabservations:
“I don’t think that Stupa girl has realized that we are going to Everest – and that Everest is cold!” my college friend Gary said to me last week. Stupas are tall, white things that appear in odd places, though that’s not why Gary and our two new British friends, Tom and Tess, had given me that name. During the past two weeks in Tibet, I’d become as obsessed with these white Buddhist obelisks as Gary had become with yaks, Tess with monks and Tom with eggs and tomato. I’d like to tell you my obsession had to do with their powerful symbolism, simplicity, ubiquity, curious resemblance to pyramids or mosques or temples or steeples, or intimate connection to the sky.
But really it had more to do with the name, “stupa,” which for me will always sound like a Guido insult. And indeed, Tom, Tess and Gary were constantly subjected to my now infamously idiotic puns. “I think that’s enough stupa pictures,” or “this view is stupa-endous!” or “Ok fine I’ll stop making stupa jokes” or “Now you want to stupa to my level of humor?”
Yaks were the other hot item. Our third day in Tibet, Gary and I had taken the pre-dawn pilgrim bus to Ganden Monastery, a place (deservedly) recommended by my college friend Silvia. We are starting out on our very first kora – the clockwise path that circumambulates most monasteries here – and are already taking an altitude break. Tibet is ridiculously high. Lhasa, one of the lowest points, is already 3700 meters (12,000 feet) above sea level – that’s as high at the top of the Rockies. Once you get above 3000 – 3500 meters, you have to start worrying about altitude sickness, and they recommend you spend the night no more than 300 meters higher than you had the previous night. Air pressure is about 30% less than at sea level, so breathing is harder. Over time, your body does adjust by increasing capillaries and such, but it takes a few days. We had already spent two sapped days in Lhasa figuring out our trip, eating yak-meat, drinking a river of water and peach juice, and taking it extremely easy. The effects of altitude include feeling sapped, having a headache, being perpetually thirsty, frequent urination, having a massive appetite (me) or none at all (everyone else), dry throat, chapped lips, and sunburns. All Tibetans in the mountains have flush red cheeks from the wind and sun, it seems. Fortunately none of us had Severe High Altitude Sickness, which causes your lungs and/or brain to fill with fluid, potentially killing you.
Ganden Monastery was 4500 meters high, 700 meters higher than Lhasa, and we weren’t taking any chances. After climbing uphill an exhausting 10 meters (1 down in American football terms), we both sat down to rest. Over Gary’s shoulders, I see a herd of yaks, and tell him to turn around: “I think you’ve got your yaks.” In the next moment, the previously-winded Gary had already sprinted halfway across the mountain to photograph them. What a guy will do to be near a yak.
The herder was a Tibetan woman, deftly cracking a bull whip. Which gave rise to my 1st dumb yak joke: “I heard that they are making another Batman movie: yakwoman.”
Yaks pervade Tibetan life. They look like shaggy cows (hence their Chinese characters is comprised of the character for “cow” with the character for “fur”). And to make it more confusing, they are often cross-bred with cows. In restaurants, you don’t know whether “beef” is yak, cow or both (or neither…). You see yaks wandering towns, crossing highways, clinging to impossibly steep mountainsides, butchered in the streets, pulling carts, being driven in the back of pickups, tilling soil, sleeping, galloping, getting their mojo on, drinking water, drying as slabs of meat over bicycles… Their butter forms one of the ingredients of the cleverly named “yak butter tea” (along with water, tea, and salt), a staple beverage throughout Tibet. (In case you are wondering, it tastes like it sounds.) Yak cheese sometimes comes fried (tastes like ricotta), or in hard cubes that you suck (tastes like Werther’s Originals, ish).
Yak butter has another important role in Tibet: lighting candles. Buddhist pilgrims go to shrines with a thermos of molten yak butter which they pour into bowl-shaped candles, or with a bucket of solid yak butter than they scoop out. I’ve always been moved by candles, ever since our school’s 1 st grade Christmas chapel when we, as “big kids,” got to carry live candles down the aisle; when we graduated 12 years later, we carried candles back out into world. (Now for insurance reasons the 1st graders carry electrical candles, which ranks up there in the sphere of atrocities next to sugar-free marshmallows.) I’m moved by lighting Christmas trees, the 8 nights of Hanukah, JFK’s eternal flame, deng deng… But this Tibetan tradition floored me. Think about the fact that in monasteries throughout Tibet, devout Buddhists are pouring their little bit of yak butter to keep the fire going.
I think I knew ahead of time that Tibet was a religious place from the hubbub over the D.L., and the fact that our recommended itinerary consisted largely on monasteries. But I hadn’t realized until I got there that Tibet smells like Buddhism. Inside the monasteries is the lingering odor of yak butter; outside, under an otherwise perfectly blue sky, the misty white clouds of incense burning from sticks, furnaces, mountaintops and monasteries. You see Buddhist swastikas on garbage trucks and doorways, rural cottages and restaurant curtains. In Lhasa, people (especially older women) walk around grocery shopping with a prayer wheel in one hand. Even our mack-daddy techno-loving driver had prayer flags hanging from the rearview mirror and a mandala around his neck.
I have never been in a religious region before, so I had never really understood why China had fretted so much about the influence of D.L., who’s been in exile in India. I had seen the D.L. talk when he came by Stanford, and he seemed like a loveable (cute, even) avuncular fellow. I don’t know much about the Tibet question (my friends in China didn’t even know Tibet was a question) and I don’t feel comfortable talking about it in a public forum anyway. But just a few things to note.
First, no matter where you go you are subtly reminded you are in China. The main street in Lhasa? Beijing Street. The massive new structure in front of the historical D.L.’s Potala Palace in the heart of Lhasa? A plaza to commemorate Tibet Liberation back in 1951 (by Mao), complete with a large Chinese flag. Tons of armed police officers patrolled the area around Johkang Temple, the most densely pilgrimmed monastery in Tibet, which has seen protests in the past.
My personal experience with the debate was limited to two people. One was a monk who simply said, “America , Tibet – the same!” (I don’t speak Tibetan and he doesn’t speak Chinese or English.) The second was a prayer-wheel spinning old woman who smiled at me as Gary and I waded through the tchotchke shops lining Jokhang’s urban kora. “Tibet,” she said pointing to herself with her free hand. “America,” I replied, thrusting my thumb at my chest. She lit up and grabbed my hand hard. “America,” she gave a thumbs up with the prayer-wheel hand, not letting go of her grip on me. Then another thumbs up: “Tibet.” Then her face darkened; “China,” she said and spit dryly at the ground. But before I could ask her to clarify her message, Gary nudged me. “Let’s go,” he said pointing to a police officer in front of the nearby 10 foot prayer wheel, “before she gets into trouble.”
The Tibet Museum has one of its four (extremely well done) sections about Tibetan history and culture dedicated to the China-Tibet relationship (all with a slant towards China’s claims over Tibet). The exhibit made a convincing argument that Tibet has been a part of China to some extent, on and off, for centuries; my Lonely Planet made a pretty compelling argument that it never has been a part of China. Gotta love the art of history.
I love trains, and so I leapt on the chance to take the world’s highest one – the highly-touted Tibet-Qinghai railroad that officially opened on July 1 st. (They are still adding coils to keep the permafrost frozen so the tracks don’t shift, and putting up more fences to prevent wandering yaks from absent-mindedly becoming yakburgers.) I love watching really long freight trains roll by – the ones with 200+ cars on them – but I think that right now the double track segments aren’t long enough for more than 40 or 50 cars to pass each other. Wonder what that means for transportation costs into Tibet, and if they are planning to expand the track. Hmph..
On a more important note, some people are concerned that this train will fundamentally change Tibet. I understand the concerns, but think they may be overblown a bit for three reasons:
(1) The train goes to Lhasa, and Lhasa is already more Chinese than Tibetan. Okay, there’s a little more yak meat drying in the street than in Chengdu, and a few more minorities than other cities, but Lhasa is already a definitely part of China. We met a very cool Han bar tender who moved here two years ago, a Chinese-run hotel that opened last year, a banana seller who’d moved her 10 years ago from Anhui.
(2) The train is bringing in two things in great numbers: goods and supplies, and tourists. Tourists come for just a little while, pay a ridiculous amount of money to take pictures of pretty things, and then leave. Of course, they like to see “Tibetan” things and so some parts of the culture may be fossilized — not the same thing as destroyed, although granted arguably as destructive. This surge in tourism may push some people from herding yaks to selling their skulls as souvenirs. But I don’t see it fundamentally changing life in Tibet. Because…
(3) Tibet is just darn remote. The minute you get outside Lhasa, you are in a totally different place. You don’t realize it at first, because you are blinded by the scenic beauty, but Tibet is extremely sparsely populated. All of China is only about 8 times the size of Tibet, but has almost 600 times as many people. We drove in a 4 WD on unfinished highways across sandy plains and through creeks (!) for three days to reach Everest Base Camp at the southern border of Tibet. But even when those roads are smoothly paved (and boring) these places will be just as remote for one reason: altitude. Human beings are smart little critters, but even the most rugged homo sapiens needs time to acclimate. There will never been an Everest Airport for that reason. (Unless of course someone comes up with a drug to accelerate altitude adjustment, something better than Diamox or the red stuff that Gary took.)
Tibetans are largely nomads. The Tibet Museum had an excellent exhibit about nomadic tents, like you might have seen in New York’s Museum of Natural History about an ancient society. But we saw these tents all over Tibet, with smoke coming out of their flaps. We passed schoolchildren who will no doubt tell their grandchildren that they did walk 3 miles each way to school – uphill both ways. The distance, the altitude, the spaces, the sheep crossing the road – that and banging your head on the bring blue sky gives you an incredible sense of space, totally different from the (loveable) smog-ridden Chinese metropolis I am living in.
Lhasa has less than a million people – it’s a village by Chinese standards, which gives it a sense of community. In Lhasa, Gary’s bar-owning friend personally knew most of the shopkeepers in his street; by the time we left, we even were bumping into other foreigners we saw regularly. We drove to Everest Base Camp along the one road (well more like half a road – it was in the process of being repaired), and constantly came across other Land Cruisers and their drivers, who of course knew our driver. And at Everest Base Camp, all the drivers hung out together til 4 in the morning – a fact I learned during the first of two middle-of-the-night trips to the loo.
Speaking of loos: I would normal err on the side of delicacy, but the incessant need to pee became a key element of our trip to Tibet. An hour or so after leaving Lhasa, our driver simply stopped the car in the middle of the two lane, shoulderless road to take a leak. We were shocked, and gawked and pointed and took pictures (discretely). But it wasn’t long before we joined the driver curbside, for three reasons: bathrooms were sparse, the ones that did exist ranged from grim to grimmer, and the high altitude meant that we had to urinate often. Like, hourly.
Most bathrooms in Tibet are an elevated platform with a 1″x2″ hole in them. That was the type at Everest Base Camp (“EBC” as the cool kids call it), and at 4 am (and then 6 am) in the pitch black I was terrified of falling in. (The life-saver: a small keychain-size flashlight I had found on the seat on a bus trip in Shangri-La.) When I emerged safely from a near-death experience that would’ve landed me on the Darwin Awards List, I looked up from 5200 meters at the craggy silhouette of the Himalayas looming even higher around me, and the tangibly close stars. I listened to the silence, nudged by the occasional distant horse bell. The next morning at sunrise, the peak of Everest shook off its cloudy shroud for a few minutes, and we got to see it glimmering in pure snowy white.
The best bathroom break though was no doubt on my birthday, at 4990 meters. I paid someone a dime to go behind a low stone wall over a 1″x2″ hole that looked down the steep side of a mountain. But the view was breathtaking: soft turquoise Yamdrok Lake, rolling mountains, fluffy white clouds, and in the distance the jagged black and white peaks of the Himalayas. All under a brilliant blue sky. Ahh.
There are pigeons at Everest Base Camp, altitude 5200 meters. They truly do rule the world.
Did you know that when pigs die on a stream of snow-melt on the Tibetan plateau, they keel over on one side but their other two legs stick out straight in the air?
For all the scenery outside, the fascinating culture and history, the awe of the monasteries, what really made our trip was the company. Gary, a good friend of mine from college living in New York, was a fantastic travel buddy. Through a hostel message board, we met up with Tom and Tess, two British students who wanted to do the same things we did at the same time. We eventually found them by walking around the streets of Lhasa; every time I passed two foreigners, I would call out “Tom? Tess?” and see if they responded – eventually it worked.
Such fun was had, best summarized by Tom: “So you Wall Street types are all professional at work and what not, and then when you go on vacation, you act like 5 year olds?”. Highlights included:
– terrible karaoke singing in the car to boy bands
– spending my birthday night watching transvestites perform in the tiny Tibetan town ironically called Gyant-se
– amusing and revealing answers to the “Associations” word game we played in the car (e.g. “Woman… Anorexia” and “Fetish… Pantyhose”)
– Eminem impersonations inspired by a hat that appeared to me (and only me) to look like something Eminem would wear
– running around Everest Base Camp with souvenir rocks singing “don’t judge me by the rocks that I got, I’m still Jenny from the Block”
– watching the VCD of Bollywood’s “My girlfriend’s new husband is not me” – and liking it
– fit monks
– bunny ear-muff wearing monks
– monks on cell-phones
– monks with Nike sneakers, debating
– a monk sneaking out of scriptural debate, pulling a cellphone out of his robe, and answering it
– teaching school children the hokey pokey
– Tess’s attempt to find a more secluded place to pee, realizing too late that many other people had had the same idea in the exact same place, and then spending 15 minutes washing her shoe off in a stream
And of course, I will never hear the ever-eloquent “yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah” song without thinking of the pristine beauty of Tibet.
At one point, we saw one of the ubiquitous tractors pulling half a dozen people down a deserted stretch of the road, but the driver was a wearing a navy full-face mask – the kind people wear in guerilla warfare. We were shocked, and since we didn’t know whether to laugh or clutch each other in terror, we did what any sensible person does over 4000 meters up: we pulled over to pee.
Every other mountain top has a monastery. The rest have cell towers. I wonder whether future archaeologists will wonder who we were trying to call?
There were pools tables EVERYWHERE. If I ever get a website up, I will dedicate it to pool tables in random places. Of all the awkward objects to lug over bumpy roads…
Okay, that’s it for this Aabservation. As always, your comments / thoughts / questions welcome. Especially since you probably know more about Tibet than I do.
P.S . I’ll get around the Yunnan and Hong Kong eventually…